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Houston Rockets: 5 Stretch Run Storylines to Watch

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst IMarch 27, 2012

Houston Rockets: 5 Stretch Run Storylines to Watch

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    There is plenty of legroom on the Rockets bench these days.

    If Kevin McHale had his druthers, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin would crowd the pine and take the court for 30-plus minutes as his team squares off tonight against the defending champion Mavericks for the second time in four days.

    Martin remains sidelined with a shoulder tear, and Lowry said Monday he hoped to return before the end of the season from a bacterial infection, but could not guarantee he will.

    The good news, he said: “I’ll be healthy at some point.”

    That quote does not suggest an imminent return. Doctors will not re-evaluate Lowry until April 7, when his antibiotic cycle expires. Even if he is cleared then to resume normal basketball activity, he will need some time to rehabilitate the groin muscle he strained March 7 in Toronto.

    The team’s best player appeared at Monday’s shootaround with an IV line in one arm and a basketball in the other, still not close to running a pick-and-roll or Houston’s offense in the clutch.

    A postseason push without a starting backcourt that averages 33 points, 7.6 rebounds and 10 assists will require indomitable play from a cast that wins more than it loses sans a superstar ballast. While LeBron James can sleepwalk his way to the above numbers in one game, what Martin and Lowry add to the Rockets’ drink takes the recipe from sketchy to saccharine.

    GM Daryl Morey knows he still needs to deliver the spice that will elevate this squad from eighth seed pursuer to title hopeful.

    McHale has infected the shorthanded roster with his herbaceous attitude. If he seemed to lose some of the locker room during a February swoon, he has clearly won the trust of the cogs tasked with keeping the Rockets afloat in a playoff pursuit while Lowry and Martin recuperate from perplexing ailments.

    It wasn’t quite the Escape from Alcatraz or classic Houdini, but Houston avoided a devastating home loss to Sacramento on Monday night, erasing multiple double-figure deficits to triumph 113-106 in overtime.

    When DeMarcus Cousins was not going ballistic in a primal 38-point showing, Marcus Thornton was peppering the listless, confounded Rockets with long-range hits. McHale’s bunch came to life when it mattered and rode Patrick Patterson’s career best 24-point outing to a critical win.

    The coaches and fans had to feel a bit nauseous when Marcus Camby and Goran Dragic limped off the court with injuries: torn left wrist ligaments for the center and a sprained left ankle for the point guard. Both plan to suit up tonight in Dallas.

    Welcome to a Western Conference stretch run that will make those Girls Gone Wild videos seem pliant by comparison.

    Looking to experience a rush without the hazards and terrors of bungee jumping or a skydiving excursion? Log on to NBA.com and watch the West standings from four through eight change more often than Kenny Rogers’ face or a John Kerry political stance.

    With the Rockets hoping to end a two-year playoff drought, here are five storylines to watch as April beckons.

Will Goran Dragic Play His Way out of Houston?

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    Morey has spent much of his Houston tenure stockpiling youngsters on rookie-scale contracts. Wary of absorbing excessive salaries that would impede his mission to land a landscape changing star and construct a champion, the franchise has adopted a no early extension policy.

    That stratagem irked Aaron Brooks and allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to woo Lowry in July 2010 with an enticing multi-year, $24 million offer sheet. Committing long-term money to Luis Scola and Lowry that summer qualified as a no-brainer move. The GM could not afford to lose those integral contributors and valorous competitors.

    Not two years later, Morey faces a tougher decision when the free-agent market opens. Who stays? Who walks?

    Dragic tops the Rockets’ list of pending bachelors. The Slovenian guard has been more than admirable in supplanting the sidelined Lowry as Houston’s starting floor general.

    Saturday night versus the Mavs, Dragic delivered this salty, arresting line: 24 points, five three pointers, five rebounds and eight assists. Four days earlier, he drained the go-ahead corner triple against the Lakers.

    That he will start tonight, despite an ankle sprain, will make him more attractive to suitors as a gamer.

    A point guard rotation with a healthy Lowry and Dragic ranks amongst the best in the conference, if not the league. How much, though, is Morey willing to shell out to keep the inventory at that vital position intact?

    Money has never been an object or a deterrent for owner Leslie Alexander. His track record, which includes green lighting an exorbitant trade for Tracy McGrady and swapping a cheap rookie for Ron Artest, shows he will spend whatever it takes to field a winning product.

    Yet, he has full faith in Morey’s plan, which prioritizes the preservation of financial flexibility over spending sprees designed to produce short-term results.

    Can Dragic, playing the finest ball of his career, fit within management’s cramped cap arrangement?

    Assuming Morey still views Lowry as the closest thing to a roster centerpiece, which he should, keeping both point guards may prove tough. Dragic will collect $2.1 million this season. How much of a raise might he procure as an unrestricted free agent?

    In an association where basketball executives often toss around cap space like gossip and nerf footballs, what will Morey do if a rival GM tempts Dragic with a deal that starts at the mid-level exception or exceeds that amount?

    Each time the reserve guard explodes to the rim or drills a saucy three-pointer, he makes it more difficult for his current team to keep him.

Can Courtney Fortson, Earl Boykins Help Rockets Get the Point?

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    Even before Dragic turned an ankle in Monday’s overtime victory, McHale lamented playing Dragic and Courtney Lee for 40-plus minutes on so many occasions. With no Lowry or Martin, what choice does the coach have?

    The team’s decision to sign Fortson for the rest of the campaign and also ink the diminutive Boykins should fill some of the gaps created by Lowry’s absence. How much can either guy help during this furious stretch run?

    Now available at point guard if Dragic cannot go: Lil’ Wayne’s hoops doppelganger and a guy who might not be tall enough to ride anything at a Six Flags theme park. Wonderful.

    While trotting out a 5’5” veteran for 22 minutes in a must-win situation is not ideal, it might work. Boykins played with an impressive poise Monday night considering that he signed his deal a few hours before tipoff and did not get the benefit of a practice before running the Rockets’ offense.

    McHale needs Dragic to stay upright to navigate a brutal April slate, but if that happens, can the two backups provide enough reserve assistance?

Keep Another Eye on Courtney Lee

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    A few fans showed up at Toyota Center in the first game since the trade deadline clad in shirts that read, “Fisher is whack, we want Hill back,” a condemnation of Morey’s Jordan Hill-Derek Fisher exchange.

    The Rockets brass, of course, does not share that viewpoint.

    The decision-makers saw enough inconsistency and dispassion from Hill to know he would never grow into a long-term answer at the forward or center spots. Ditto for Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn and Terrence Williams, the other three underachieving 2009 lottery picks jettisoned on deadline day. Thabeet and Flynn don’t have any game.

    Trimming that roster fat did not damage the team’s cap situation much. Dealing for Camby and buying out Fisher’s contract will not spell the difference between making a free-agency splash and exiting the marketplace empty-handed.

    One matter that will affect how the front office approaches July 1: Lee’s future in Houston. The Rockets owe a commendable 5-3 mark sans Lowry and Martin to gutsy performances from Lee and Dragic. How many teams with financial wiggle room would love to steal away one or both this summer?

    Lee started on an Orlando Magic squad that reached the NBA Finals, a clear indication that he can log significant daylight on a championship unit. He has done everything possible of late to drive up his price as a Rocket. Lee’s restricted status will make it tougher for foes to pry him from Morey’s grasp, but expect a few executives to try.

    Wouldn’t the Chicago Bulls, who have cobbled together a passable shooting guard rotation and tried to trade for him at the 2011 deadline, love to put him alongside Derrick Rose?

Can Patterson Build on Career Night?

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    With every jumper and spinning hook shot against the Kings, Patterson made the question more prescient than ever. Has he become as vital a component of the Rockets future as Lowry and rookie Chandler Parsons? No player on this roll call is untouchable, but those three should come close.

    Keeping Lee and Dragic for the right price would be terrific. Keeping Patterson in the fold while Morey attempts an overhaul borders on essential.

    The rocklike Kentucky product began this dizzying, truncated season out of shape. He played like a lost child in a flea market just hoping to locate mommy. Blame an injury, not Patterson, for that brief career setback.

    He has since regained his NBA footing and looks like more of a keeper than he did after Morey picked him 14th in the 2010 draft. Patterson advertised himself then as a malleable big guy and an agreeable teammate, the sort of adhesive locker-room presence sideline chiefs love to coach.

    The 6’9” forward averages 7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds, but the Rockets need much more than that to stave off a third consecutive early vacation. He will not post 24 points as often as, say, Dirk Nowitzki, the Hall-of-Fame counterpart who will start for the Mavs tonight.

    If, however, he can consistently reach double figures, that additional weapon would further assuage the losses of Lowry and Martin.

Next Man Up: Can Rockets Rival Texans in Quest for Fan Affection?

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    Do you want to engineer a debate that causes as many followers to run to opposite sides of a line as a woman’s right to an abortion or Obamacare? Just ask a sports junkie to determine whether a playoff berth means more in the NBA or NFL. Pigskin disciples will forever worship the NFL and value their gridiron squad’s success over any other franchise in town.

    That reality is as evident as ever in Houston, where many fans would rather discuss the Texans’ offseason exploits than the Rockets’ postseason push. The Texans will not conduct a meaningful practice for several months, while Rockets players will know in the next few weeks whether to grab a spot on the couch or purchase dancing shoes.

    Football reigns supreme in Texas. It should surprise no one, then, that the Texans first playoff appearance in 10 underwhelming—and that is polite—seasons trumps anything else here.

    Check out the Rockets’ upcoming barbarous itinerary, courtesy of the team’s Web site:

    March

    Opponent

    Time

    Local TV

    Nat TV

    Radio

     Tue 27

     at Dallas   

     7:30pm

     FSNHOU

     

     610am, 96.5FM and 850am

     Fri 30

     vs Memphis  

     7:00pm

     FSNHOU

     

     610am and 850am

    April

    Opponent

    Time

    Local TV

    Nat TV

    Radio

     Sun 01

     vs Indiana  

     6:00pm

     FSNHOU

     

     610am, 96.5FM and 850am

     Mon 02

     at Chicago   

     7:00pm

     FSNHOU

     

     610am and 850am

    Fri 06

     at LA Lakers   

     9:30pm

     FSNHOU

     

     610am, 96.5FM and 850am

     Sun 08

     at Sacramento   

     8:00pm

     FSNHOU

     

     610am and 850am

     Mon 09

     at Portland   

     9:00pm

     KTXH

     

     610am and 850am

     Wed 11

     vs Utah  

     7:00pm

     KTXH

     

     610am and 850am

     Fri 13

     vs Phoenix  

     7:00pm

     KTXH

     

     610am and 850am

     Sun 15

     at Denver   

     7:00pm

     FSNHOU

     

     610am and 850am

     Mon 16

     vs Denver  

     7:00pm

     KTXH

     

     610am and 850am

     Wed 18

     at Dallas   

     7:30pm

     KTXH

     

     610am and 850am

     Thu 19

     at New Orleans   

     7:00pm

     KTXH

     

     610am and 850am

     Sat 21

     vs Golden State  

     7:00pm

     KTXH

     

     610am and 850am

    Sun 22

     at Miami   

     5:00pm

     FSNHOU

     

     610am, 96.5FM and 850am

     Thu 26

     vs New Orleans  

     7:00pm

     FSNHOU

     

     610am and 850am

    If the squad can survive this slate and stay in the conference’s top eight with Lowry and Martin uncertain when they will return, doesn’t that feat measure up to anything the Texans accomplished in stomping through the AFC South?

    Gary Kubiak’s team earned an all-you-can-eat buffet of respect by withstanding demoralizing injuries to Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Mario Williams and other fixtures. The franchise’s first ever postseason triumph created a buzz in Houston not seen since the Astros won the pennant in 2005 and Hakeem Olajuwon hoisted his second consecutive Larry O’Brien trophy.

    Yet, the Texans’ stacked roster should have plowed through a horrible division in which the best player, quarterback Peyton Manning, took zero snaps.

    Morey knows he must secure a star for his club to receive comparable adoration to the Texans. If the Rockets host at least two playoff matches, can they win back some of that support?

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